There are currently about 17,200 students attending UC Santa Cruz. If our university was representative of the total American population, 120 of our peers would currently be behind bars, as on average 1 out of every 143 Americans is currently incarcerated. The country that likes to refer to itself as “the home of the free” in fact currently houses more than 2.2 million inmates — a quarter of the world’s total prison population.
In an effort to deflate our grotesquely overpopulated prisons, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, with the approval of President Obama, set up a new process for federal inmates charged with nonviolent offenses to potentially obtain clemency and be released from prison or have their sentences shortened.
Considering over 51 percent of federal prison inmates are serving time on drug crime charges, this is a significant step in the right direction. However, there are strict guidelines.
Some of the guidelines that must be met for current prisoners to be eligible for clemency include being low level nonviolent offenders with no significant criminal history. Eligible inmates must also be serving federal sentences that would most likely be shorter, if the trial was today. Further, they must have served 10 years in prison while demonstrating good conduct and no history of violence before or during their sentence.
Of the more than 200,000 inmates in United States federal prisons, Cole estimates only approximately 2,000 of the inmates will meet the new criteria to be eligible for clemency. While this would certainly be an improvement for President Obama, who has pardoned less inmates than any other president since the early 19th century, it will still affect fewer than one percent of the federal prison population.
These new guidelines for clemency and milder sentences are the most the president has done toward trying to alleviate the overpopulation of federal prisons since he signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The act reduced the disparity between charges of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and eliminated the five-year minimum sentence for possession of crack cocaine.
Still, this act had its fair share of problems. Since it was passed in 2010, approximately 9,000 prisoners who were sentenced before the act was passed remain in prison. Some of these prisoners will now be eligible for clemency if they meet the critical new criteria, but a lot of them will not.
Inmates required to have spent at least 10 years in prison for eligibility narrows down the possible candidates to 13 percent of all federal prisoners. Requiring the prisoners to maintain good conduct while imprisoned ignores the harsh reality that, while incarcerated, inmates are often forced into violence for survival.
Many inmates with nonviolent drug charges enter prison with no gang affiliation or friends on the inside and are forced to align themselves into groups and cliques for their own safety. If a man or woman facing an excruciatingly long marijuana charge from the 1990s gets in a few fights trying to protect themselves in prison, it shouldn’t mean they won’t be eligible for clemency today.
President Obama’s decision is limited because he doesn’t have the power to grant clemency in state prisons, which means that while a limited group of nonviolent offenders have a glimpse at clemency, 86 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated population will not have such an opporunity. California prisons are expected to be at 137.5 percent of their intended capacity by 2016. Despite this, Gov. Jerry Brown decided to grant all 127 of his pardons last Christmas to people who had already been released from prison.
The fact that chances for clemency are being expanded for nonviolent offenders is a move in the right direction, but the truth is it’s not enough. The number of inmates in federal prisons increased eightfold since 1980 and a staggering portion of the increase is due to nonviolent drug related crimes.
These new clemency opportunities need to be expanded and we as a nation need to take a good hard look at our drug laws at both the state and federal level.